Some say that everyone wants to be understood. Whether we all agree or not is secondary, and frankly, not a realistic goal to pursue. Seeking to understand, on the other hand, strengthens relational bonds and breaks down our black-and-white view of the world. At times, however, efforts to bring attention to common ground or highlight shared values often patronize one side and hold up the other, on every issue. An article you may find in a conservative magazine entitled something like “Understanding LGBTQ+ Activism” would no doubt subtly patronize members of that community and assume superiority in this area of disagreement. On the other side, a liberal article about “Understanding the Pro-Life Side” may softly treat members of this community like anti-science, unloving fear-mongers, or perhaps worse, naïve and ignorant children. Before we can seek to understand, we must put aside our differences and our subtle (and not-so-subtle) jabs at what we deem as the wrong side.
“Putting aside our differences” does not mean that we pretend that they are not important. For goodness’ sake, political and personal issues are important. If you’re a believer in global warming, your belief is that we are ruining this planet for the animals today and our great-great-grandchildren tomorrow–that’s not a small issue. If you’re pro-life, you believe that millions of pain-experiencing children, full of potential and innocence, have been killed wrongly in the womb. If you’re a gay rights activist, you believe teens and adults are pointlessly being excluded from their homes and their communities, all for the sake of an archaic value system. If you’re an advocate for religious freedom, you believe that religious adherents are being criticised and often forced to do things they shouldn’t really have to do. If you’re an anti-gun activist, you believe that fewer lives would be lost and this society would be safer if we simply banned (or severely restricted) guns.
Global warming, abortion, LGBTQ+ rights, religious freedom, and the 2nd amendment are all important issues that must be discussed in a functioning society, but when we let these issues divide us, we only create more problems. Anger, mistrust, hatred, and disrespect arise. Instead of a passionate, caring discussion about the topics that matter to us most, we divulge into arguments that (if we’re being honest) never change anyone’s mind. In fact, some say these arguments only cement our preconceived notions into our minds, so what does that help?
A common refrain you may hear from politicians or activists is that we must “find common ground.” I don’t even believe in that, because honestly, it can be quite difficult with some people, and we make a mistake if we believe it’s necessary to love and connect. A staunched pro-gay, pro-abortion, stereotypical liberal can love and appreciate a rigid anti-LGBT, pro-life, stereotypical conservative. All it takes is understanding.
How do we cultivate understanding, even with people whose ideas we are adamantly against? It starts with respect, which is why the aforementioned condescension is so unhelpful. When we acknowledge that others have reached their own separate opinion through (usually) valid thought processes, we take the first step of respect. Instead of writing off our opponents as hateful, ignorant, thoughtless, or idiotic, we see a bigger picture and recognize that justifiable thoughts, past experience, firm convictions, and concern for their world brought about these opinions.
Often, it isn’t enjoyable to see the world in the full color that it is. We would rather see it in black and white, neatly packed into boxes of right and wrong, and good and bad. While I must affirm the existence of right and wrong, and good and bad, I will clarify that mere humans cannot be simplified to such terms. We are not characters in a children’s novel; we are complicated, messy, intricate.
Seeking to understand does not mean downplaying, ignoring, or putting away differences. And it certainly doesn’t mean coming to an agreement. Lots of people feel that to change their opinion on certain issues would sacrifice their belief system, and I don’t believe that’s necessary, because it doesn’t stand in the way of kindness. A Christian can love a gay person, while believing their actions are wrong. A pro-choice advocate can love a Catholic friend, while believing that abortion is not murder. And a gun safety activist can love their gun-toting neighbor, while believing that guns are unwise. We don’t need to hold hands and pretend we all agree, or ignore our convictions. We must only seek to understand by respecting and loving others.